The unsettling Robert Aickman




Over the years I’ve learned to be sceptical of the publicity blurbs adorning the covers of new paperback books.  Usually, these assure potential buyers that the book in question is an absolute page-turner that you just can’t put down.  However, the blurb on the cover of The Wine-Dark Sea, a collection of short stories by the late writer Robert Aickman, which was originally published in 1988 and which appeared in a new edition last year courtesy of Faber & Faber, is bang on the money.


It contains a comment by Neil Gaiman, no less, who says of the author: “Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was.  All I know is that he did it beautifully.”


That’s as good a description as any of the feeling I get when reading Aickman.  You’re aware that he’s going to perform a trick involving some literary sleight-of-hand.  You don’t know what the trick’s going to be, or when he’s going to do it; and afterwards, you’re not even sure if the trick has been performed, or what the point of it was.  Then you mull it over.  And finally, most of the time, you decide: Wow! That was impressive!


I have, though, added ‘most of the time’ as a disclaimer to that previous sentence.  Because, very occasionally, my reaction to an Aickman story has been different: What a load of cobblers!


(c) Mandarin


I first came across Aickman’s work in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when his stories cropped up in horror anthologies such as The Far Reaches of Fear (1976), New Terrors (1980) and Dark Forces (1980).  Although they rubbed shoulders with some grisly items in those collections, Aickman’s stories didn’t fit comfortably with the ‘horror’ label.  And the claim that some people made about him, that he was actually a ‘ghost’ story writer in the mould of M.R. James, didn’t convince either.  Aickman liked to describe his stories as ‘strange’ ones and ‘strange’ is probably the adjective I’d attach to them too.


It wasn’t just his fiction that seemed out-of-place.  Aickman himself seemed out-of-place in post-war Britain, being a man of old-fashioned views and erudite – some would say ‘elitist’ – tastes.  He was a conservationist who co-founded the Inland Waterways Association and battled to prevent Britain’s no-longer-in-commercial-use canal system from being filled in; a political conservative; and a lover of ballet, opera, classical music and highbrow theatre.  I imagine that by the 1970s, when the UK’s political and cultural landscape was one of Labour governments and frequent industrial action by trade unions, of glam rock and bubble-gum pop music, of cheap-and-cheerful downmarket TV shows like Crossroads and On the Buses, he was not a particularly happy bunny.  Inevitably, this sense of alienation appears in his fiction.  His stories feature a lot of discontented middle-aged men (or women) who are set in their ways and don’t do a good job coping with a changing, modern world that seems diametrically opposed to their ways.


I found much of Aickman’s work baffling when, as a teenager, I first encountered it; although I was impressed by his contribution to New Terrors, a 55-page story called The Stains.  It tells the tale of Stephen, a widowed civil servant, who meets a mysterious, wild-seeming, almost dryad-like girl called Nell whilst rambling on some remote moors.  He becomes infatuated with Nell, with the result that he takes early retirement from his job, abandons his ties with the ‘civilised’ world and attempts to live with her in an empty, tumbledown house on the moors.  But the story is no New Age male fantasy.  Aickman steers it in a darker direction.  Nell is an embodiment of the natural world and, obsessed with her, Stephen succumbs to his natural instincts – but nature soon intrudes in a more grotesque way.  As their romance progresses, Stephen notices weird moulds, fungi and lichen spreading across the walls and furniture around him.  There are even hints that these agents of decay have manifested themselves on his flesh too.


The Stains is regarded as one of Aickman’s most autobiographical stories.  Many people see in Stephen’s unpleasantly doomed relationship with Nell a metaphor for Aickman’s love affair with the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.  After being involved with him, and then with Laurie Lee and Arthur Koestler, Howard married Kingsley Amis in 1965.  Aickman, whose obsession with Howard was described by one friend as a ‘mental aberration’, must have found the thought that she’d chosen the increasingly boorish Amis over him hard to stomach.  And incidentally, like a good number of Aickman’s stories, The Stains shows that he wasn’t afraid to flavour his work – no matter how fuddy-duddy the characters – with a strong dose of eroticism.


(c) Fontana


My teenage self was sufficiently curious to seek out more of Aickman’s work and I located two collections of his short stories, Dark Entries (1964) and Cold Hand in Mine (1975).  Predictably, some of those stories bewildered me, and a few irritated me; but several, like The Stains, have haunted me ever since.  (Incidentally, I often wonder if, long before he became the front-man for the goth-rock band Bauhaus, a young Peter Murphy read the earlier book; and was so impressed by it that he pinched its title for the Bauhaus song Dark Entries, which was released as a single in 1980.)


One story I remember well is The Swords, in which a young travelling salesman goes to bed with a strangely blank woman whom he’s encountered at a seedy carnival sideshow. In bed, inevitably, he discovers that she isn’t what she seems.  Also memorable is The Hospice, a Kafka-esque tale of a motorist getting lost at night and asking for shelter at the institution of the title.  He isn’t inside the hospice for long before he notices odd things about how the inmates are cared for — most disturbingly, in the dining room, he sees that one patient is shackled to the floor.


And in Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal, Aickman tackles one of the commonest tropes in horror fiction in one of its most traditional settings.  It purports to be a series of diary entries written by a young woman in 1815 who’s accompanying her parents on a dull-sounding tour of central Europe.  She becomes excited, though, when she discovers that they’re in the same neighbourhood as her secret hero, Lord Byron, who lives there ‘in riot and wickedness’.  And she soon encounters her own personal Lord Bryon in the form of a mysterious gentleman attending a local contessa’s party.  His ‘skin is somewhat pallid’, his nose is ‘aquiline and commanding’ and, most suspiciously of all, his mouth is ‘scarlet’.   You can guess where this is heading.


Aickman’s approach to telling creepy stories was subtle, mannered and leisurely – often, his stories needed a lot of build-up before they reached their denouements.  At the start of the 1980s this approach seemed anachronistic.  British literary horror had indeed been subtle, mannered and leisurely once, back in the days of M.R. James and E.F. Benson; but in the mid-1970s it’d experienced a punk-rock moment when James Herbert unleashed a slew of bestselling horror novels like The Rats and The Fog that were unapologetically in your face with gore, violence and grottiness.  And a little later, in the 1980s, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series would pioneer a style of horror-writing that was in equal parts perverse, visionary and spectacularly gruesome.


So when I read in a newspaper in 1981 that Aickman had died of cancer – which, in his typically obstinate way, he’d refused to have any conventional medical treatment for, preferring instead to rely on dubious ‘homeopathic’ cures – I assumed, sadly, that his work would soon be out of fashion, out of print and out of readers’ memories.


(c) Mandarin


Years later, I stumbled across a copy of a posthumously-published collection by him called The Unsettled Dust (1990).  It contained the odd story that annoyed me, but generally I greatly enjoyed it.  By now I knew what to expect from Aickman and was mature enough to appreciate his elegant prose, his subtle build-up of suspense, his oddball but endearingly-drawn characters and his moments of utter strangeness.  Admittedly, in many cases, I wasn’t sure what happened at the stories’ ends; and even after thinking about them carefully, I still wasn’t sure.  But what the hell?  With Aickman, the pleasure was in getting there.


I particularly liked the title story, in which an official stays at a stately home whilst negotiating the transfer of the house’s running from the hands of its aristocratic inhabitants into the hands of the National Trust.  He discovers a peculiar room deep inside the house where, like in a giant snow globe, huge patches of dust are continually and spectrally floating through the air.  This illustrates another of Aickman’s talents, being able to convincingly weave into his stories scenes and incidents that are totally outlandish.  So sober is the tone of everything else that’s going on that you readily accept these mad bits as part of the narrative.


Nonetheless, it seemed appropriate that I’d found The Unsettled Dust in a rack of second-hand books of a corner of a small antiques shop in a village in rural County Suffolk – an obscure place to find an obscure book by an obscure writer.


But, happily, I was wrong.  Recent years have seen a revival of interest in Robert Aickman, which reached a peak in 2014 – the centenary of his year of birth – when Faber & Faber republished The Wine-Dark Sea, Dark Entries, Cold Hand in Mind and The Unsettled Dust.  His work has been championed by Neil Gaiman; by Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith of The League of Gentlemen; and by Dame Edna Everage himself (or herself), Barry Humphries, who in addition to being a comedian and actor is a committed bibliophile with a library of 25,000 books.  And the Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph have all printed articles about him lately.


I’ve just finished reading the stories contained in The Wine-Dark Sea and it’s possibly my favourite Aickman collection yet.  I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, though – this being Aickman, there has to be at least one story that gets on my wick.  In this case the offender is Growing Boys, a satiric fantasy about a woman who has to deal with two sons growing at a supernatural rate, to supernatural sizes, and becoming criminal psychopaths.  An ineffectual police force, an ineffectual school system and an ineffectual father (who’s more interested in running for parliament as a Liberal Party candidate) do nothing to stop them.  Aickman seemingly uses the story to bemoan the delinquency of the younger generation and the inadequacy of Britain’s post-war institutions.  At the same time, he depicts another character, a crusty old uncle with a zeal for using guns and artillery, with apparent approval.  It’s reactionary but, much worse, it isn’t funny.


Another pair of stories in The Wine-Dark Sea show Aickman taking two more of his modern-day bugbears and channelling his indignation at them into macabre stories — but much more successfully than he does with Growing Boys.  Never Visit Venice lays into the modern phenomenon of mass tourism.  Its hero is so disappointed in how the historic Italian city has been degraded by sightseers that, unwisely, he ends up taking a ride in an infernal gondola that seems to have been punted out through the gates of hell.


Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, meanwhile, is about an unsociable man who, while minding an apartment for a friend, gets addicted to using the apartment’s telephone.  Through it, he communicates with a strange woman who may or may not really exist.  Telephones were becoming a common feature of British households at the time the story was written, presumably to Aickman’s discomfort.  Perhaps it’s just as well that he didn’t live to see the situation today, when mobiles and smart-phones have practically taken over the world.


However, for me, the best story in The Wine-Dark Sea is The Inner Room, which is about a haunted doll’s house.  Now haunted doll’s houses have appeared in many scary stories over the years, most famously in one written by M.R. James called – surprise! – The Haunted Doll’s House.  But Aickman infuses The Inner Room with a wry, sad humour.  Its climax, on the other hand, is unexpectedly and phantasmagorically weird and reminds me a little of the fiction of Angela Carter.


Incidentally, so in vogue is Aickman now that there’s a Facebook page devoted to him at  And somebody has even set up a twitter account that allegedly offers tweets from ‘the dead Robert Aickman’ — you’ll find this at  Robert Aickman with a presence on social media?  I’m sure he would have loved that.  Not.


(c) Berkley


My heroes — please stop dying


(c) ITV / ABC / Thames


It’s not been a good few weeks for that small band of people whom I regard as my heroes.  Last month saw the passing of a musical hero, B.B. King, while earlier this month a cinematic one, Sir Christopher Lee, shuffled off this mortal coil too.  Meanwhile, a week ago, a literary and artistic hero, Alasdair Gray, had a close call with the Grim Reaper – the venerable author, poet, playwright, illustrator, painter and muralist suffered serious leg and back injuries after falling down a flight of stairs at his Glasgow home.


And now I’ve heard about the death of a televisual hero: the actor Patrick Macnee passed away at his home in California yesterday at the age of 93.  It’s a sad coincidence that Macnee has departed just three weeks after Christopher Lee, since the pair of them attended school together (at Summerfields Preparatory School in Oxford) and also performed together several times, including playing Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in two TV movies in the early 1990s, Incident at Victoria Falls and Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady.  Macnee and Lee had also been the last surviving members of the cast of Laurence Olivier’s celebrated film adaptation of Hamlet, made in 1948.


In the 1960s, of course, Patrick Macnee imprinted himself on Britain’s cultural consciousness as the suave and unflappable John Steed in The Avengers (1961-1969): a series that even now, in this era of critically-acclaimed telly like The Sopranos, The Wire and True Detective, some folk would identify as the best TV show of all time.


(c) ITV / ABC / Thames


It started as a conventional thriller series where Macnee’s Steed – clad in a grubby trench-coat that was the antithesis of the dapper outfit he’d later become famous for – fought against criminals, gangsters and general bad guys in partnership with Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel.  When Hendry left the show after its first season, however, The Avengers mutated.  Steed acquired a new partner, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale, a lady who was a dab hand at judo, had a fondness for wearing leather and gave as good as she got – all of which made her a revolutionary female character by the TV standards of the time.  And Steed himself had a sartorial overhaul.  He ended up wearing a Saville Row suit and bowler hat and carrying a brolly – the epitome of stereotypical, gentlemanly Englishness – and thus a 1960s icon was born.  No wonder that when The Avengers was shown in France, it was retitled Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir (‘bowler hat and leather boots’).


Also changing in style were the stories.  The Avengers’ scripts became increasingly outlandish, so that by the mid-1960s Steed was battling invisible men, flesh-eating plants from outer space, household cats that turned into killers, and a troupe of clunking, unstoppable robots called the Cybernauts.  Responsible for many of the show’s bizarre storylines was the show’s main writer, co-producer and guiding light, Brian Clemens, who himself passed away at the beginning of this year.  Coincidentally, a few days ago, I was having a chat on Skype with the journalist, author, blogger, producer and comedy impresario John Fleming and he mentioned having interviewed Clemens back in the early 1980s.  Clemens’ imagination, Fleming recalled, was so fecund that even during the interview the writer kept coming up with story ideas, off-the-cuff.


(c) ITV / ABC / Thames


By the time Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale had been replaced by Diana Rigg’s fey, bemused-looking Emma Peel and the show was being broadcast in colour, The Avengers had become so gloriously baroque that there was something almost insolent about its stylishness.  It was a cocktail of smooth, not-a-hair-out-of-place heroes and crazed, despicable villains, of fancy sets, fancy camerawork and fancy colours, of elaborate (but bloodless) fight-scenes and stunt-work, of vintage cars and country houses, of jokes and sexual innuendo.  It was espionage, action, violence, comedy, surrealism, science fiction, horror and kinkiness rolled into one.


If anything, Macnee’s chemistry with Rigg was even better than his chemistry with Blackman. And Rigg’s slinky costumes didn’t hurt the viewing figures, either – never more so than in the episode A Touch of Brimstone, wherein when she donned black boots, a corset and a spiked collar, with a snake as a de Sadean accoutrement.  It didn’t surprise me that when Rigg and Daniel Radcliffe appeared as themselves in a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais’ TV comedy series Extras, the pervy young Radcliffe asked Rigg sheepishly, “Have you still got that cat-suit from The Avengers?”


One of the show’s many stylistic touches was that whenever Steed entered a public place – a street, a store, a railway station – that place was always shown to be deserted, so that Steed was always alone.  Clemens and his production team had decided that, even by 1960s standards, Steed’s suit-bowler-and-brolly look was too odd and anachronistic for him to be depicted, convincingly, rubbing shoulders with the Great British public.  This policy made the show seem even more surreal.


(c) ITV / ABC / Thames


The final seasons of The Avengers had Steed working with a new partner, Tara King, played by Linda Thorson.  She was less popular than her predecessors and there was less of a fizz between her and Macnee.  Simultaneously, though, the programme-makers inserted hints that she had the hots for Steed, which was a terrible idea.  The whole thing about Steed and his lady partners is that they’re just that, partners.  Despite the amount of flirtation going on they’re never going to end up in bed together.  Clemens was unhappy about the casting of Thorson, whom he thought lacked a sense of humour, and for that reason he added another character to the show, Mother.  Played by the portly character actor Patrick Newell, Mother was Steed’s pseudonymous boss — an ‘M’ to Steed’s James Bond.  With him around, Steed at least had somebody with whom he could make jokes and enjoy a little banter.


That said, I remain fond of the late-1960s Avengers because it was still offbeat and inventive and there still wasn’t anything else like it on television.


Macnee got a chance to reprise the role of Steed in 1976 when Clemens and co-producer Albert Fennell launched what would be a two-season series called The New Avengers.  This time Steed was partnered with Joanna Lumley’s Purdey – a character whom Clemens named after a type of shotgun – and Gareth Hunt’s Mike Gambit.  The young, virile Hunt was added to the cast because it was felt that Macnee, now in his fifties, was getting too long-in-the-tooth to handle the show’s action sequences.  Despite a few wrinkles, though, Macnee / Steed was as debonair as ever.


(c) ITV / The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises Ltd


The New Avengers is less fondly remembered than The Avengers and it suffered from financial problems, with the result that more expensive, fantastical episodes like The Eagle’s Nest and Last of the Cybernauts, which were in the same spirit as The Avengers in its glory days, were gradually phased out in favour of cheaper, more generic, espionage-themed ones.  But Macnee, Lumley and Hunt made a likeable and entertaining team and Lumley’s no-nonsense ballerina-cum-martial-arts expert Purdey became a mid-1970s icon.  (As a kid of 10 or 11 at the time, I can remember the Purdey Effect in the school playground.  Schoolgirls who’d formerly burst into tears when obnoxious schoolboys stole their packed lunches or pulled their pigtails would suddenly turn around and karate-kick their tormentors in the goolies.)


And I love a sequence in The New Avengers episode House of Cards where a visitor to Steed’s home notices framed photographs of Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King on his shelf and asks the distracted Steed about them.  Thinking that she’s looking at three other pictures, of three horses that he once owned, he says of Gale: “We went through some tricky situations together.  Faithful.  Reliable.”  Of Peel: “Very spirited and very special.  Fantastic creature.  Had to take a whip to her, though, sometimes.”  And of King: “Liked her oats too much.  I sold her to an Arab prince.  I think he eventually had to shoot her.”


Elsewhere, Macnee had a busy film and TV career, including supporting roles in Joe Dante’s fun werewolf movie The Howling (1979) and Rob Reiner’s mockumentary about the world’s worst heavy metal band This is Spinal Tap (1984), in which he played record-company owner Sir Denis Eton-Hogg.  And as Roger Moore’s side-kick Sir Godfrey Tibbett, he was one of the few good things about the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill.


He also turned up on American television, including a 1975 episode of Columbo called Troubled Waters, in which he plays the pompous captain of a cruise liner where a murder is committed.  Peter Falk’s crumpled Lieutenant Columbo happens to be on board, taking a holiday with ‘the wife’; and he resolves to find the murderer.  This, though, does nothing for Macnee’s blood pressure.  Throughout the episode, Falk winds up Macnee more and more by constantly referring to his beloved ship as a ‘boat’.


I think the last I saw of Patrick Macnee was in the 1995 video for the Oasis song Don’t Look Back in Anger, in which he’s seen chauffeuring the famously-mouthy Mancunian Britpop band to an English country house.  Later in the video, he’s shown standing in silhouette, wielding that iconic brolly.  I was never much of a fan of Oasis or their retro-1960s rock sound, but I can understand why they wanted to hang out with Macnee.  No doubt they hoped that some of John Steed’s majestic 1960s chic would rub off on them.


(c) ITV / ABC / Thames


Republicans no longer pals with Pope




After posting four or five consecutive entries about politics around the time of last month’s UK general election, I thought I’d take a break from writing about politics on this blog for a while.  However, I now feel compelled to put pen to paper — or put fingers to keyboard — and comment on the reactions by certain politicos in the USA to the release on June 18th of Pope Francis’s 192-page document about the environment.


This papal document – to give it its technical term, this ‘encyclical letter’ – argues for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet”, most importantly with regard to climate change, which it says is “aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is the heart of the worldwide energy system.”  In other words, the Pope is saying man-made climate change is real and we’d better get serious about dealing with it.


The reactions to the encyclical that compel me to write have come from some leading lights in the American Republican Party.  The Republicans are not known for their enthusiasm in telling their big-business backers to go easy on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels for the sake of combatting climate change.  They also, currently, have five practising Catholics vying to be their nomination in the 2016 presidential contest, namely Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio.  In fact, how a few of those nomination-seeking Catholic Republicans responded to their Pope’s words left me in fits of laughter.  Bitter laughter, but laughter nonetheless.


Firstly, Jeb Bush, who in 1995 converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and is now a Fourth Degree (as opposed to a fourth-rate) Knight of Columbus, gave his Religious Head Honcho short shrift for his intervention in the climate-change debate.  “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope,” he snorted.  “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up in the political realm.”


(c) Time


Well, that’s odd.  The Republicans have never seemed reluctant about applying religion to the political realm before.  Indeed, they usually insert God, scripture and the church into American political discourse with the subtlety of a bulldozer.  They bleat about their credentials as good Christians, who pray ten times a day and read the Good Book ten times a year, and then cite the Big Man Up There to justify their stance on just about everything: war, guns, abortion, gays, censorship, etc.  This has especially been the case since the 1990s, a period when, to quote the US satirist Bill Maher, the Democrats under Bill Clinton moved to the centre-right while the Republicans “drove the crazy bus straight to Nut Town.”


So yes, it’s a bit rich for Jeb Bush to be suddenly warning the clergy away from politics.


And then there’s Rick Santorum, a man who in the past has vowed never to attend a same-sex marriage because it would be “a violation” of his faith; has condemned contraception as “dangerous” because it gives “licence to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be”; and has said that he doesn’t “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”  But as soon as Pope Frank started airing his views on man-made climate change, Santorum suddenly lost his enthusiasm for all things Catholic and religious too.


Hilariously, Santorum told the Pope not to stay out of politics, but to stay out of science.  “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science,” he declared, “and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.”   Now Santorum and the Republican Party generally saying that science should be left to the scientists is about as convincing as Idi Amin saying in 1972 that Uganda’s banking and tailoring industries should be left to the Gujarati Indians.


I haven’t seen Republicans pay any attention to the near-absolute consensus that exists among climate scientists about the reality of man-made climate change.  NASA, a respected American institution that’s done far more for its country’s standing in the world than any recent Republican politician, including Jeb Bush’s hapless dad and his idiot brother, states baldly that “(m)ultiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.”


When Santorum talked about leaving science to the scientists, I presume what he really meant was leaving it to the handful of so-called scientists financed by Shell to propagate the idea that you can tear fossil fuels, which took from 50 to 350 million years to form, out of the ground and pump them into the atmosphere during the space of two-and-a-half centuries and expect this to have no effect on earth’s climate whatever.


(c) The Huffington Post


Oh, and Santorum, the man who believes that the Catholic Church has got it wrong about science and that science should be left to scientists, opposes the teaching of evolution in schools.  I’m confused now.


Make no mistake.  I’d be far happier if all popes, cardinals, bishops, archbishops, patriarchs, vicars, priests, rabbis, imams, muftis, ayatollahs, monks, nuns, etc., kept out of politics entirely.  They’re mouthpieces for different forms of organised religion, which to me are simply systems of mass control – control over how people think, how people behave and how people reproduce.  Of course, normally, right-wing politicians approve of this because control, over the less-well-off oiks who form the majority of their countries’ populations, is one of the main things they’re concerned with.  (The other main thing they’re concerned with is making the rich and powerful interests in their countries even richer and more powerful.)


But it seems illogical and dishonest for Republicans to cherry-pick pieces of the church’s teachings when it suits them, but then to react with disdain to those pieces that don’t suit them: “Abortion?  It’s bad because the Pope says so!  Gay rights?  They’re bad too, because the Pope says so – right on, Pope!  Climate change?  Ugh, don’t listen to the Pope!  He’s an idiot!”


In the whacky world of US right-wing politics, though, the rules of logic do not apply.  The Pope-right / Pope-wrong approach of the likes of Bush and Santorum is no more irrational than, say, the attitude of the National Rifle Association executive who claimed that the shooting / slaughter of nine people last week at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was the fault of one of the victims, the pastor – because, as a state senator, that pastor had once opposed a new law that’d allow the concealed possession of handguns in churches.  No, the shooting to death of those nine people certainly wasn’t the fault of America’s gun laws (or lack of gun laws).  And presumably it wasn’t the fault of the w***er who shot them, either.


Still, you can’t expect America’s right wing to have any glints of logic, or rationality, or intelligence in its soul.  Not when it exists as a paranoid, delusional mass that listens only to its own babbling voices and is deaf to anything emanating from the outside world; a mass bobbing about in the sense-depriving flotation tank of hysteria, fear, pseudo-science, superstition and ignorance that is Fox News, the only TV news channel that conservative America seems to tune into these days.


Incidentally, as an indicator of I.Q. levels at Fox News, here’s a clip of its infamous political commentator Bill O’Reilly arguing how the movement of the tides explains the existence of God.  Apparently, Bill has never heard of a large celestial object called the moon.


“Tide goes in, tide goes out…”  What a thicko.


A table of cats



Yes, it’s a table of cats – pictured at the edge of the butchery area in Kolkata’s New Market.


These adorable little fluffy creatures were enjoying a snooze, presumably after they’d gorged themselves stupid on raw, glistening goats’ entrails and chickens’ viscera – dumped on the floor, amid viscous pools of hot, stinking blood, after being scooped out of the carcasses of animals that’d recently perished, in agony and terror, on the butchery area’s killing slabs.


And when these purring balls of fun and loveliness revived from their slumbers, what would they do?  Why, they’d no doubt descend onto that floor and, amid the blood-pools, stuff their furry whiskered faces again with more goats’ entrails and more chicken’s viscera.


Aw!  Aren’t cats cute?


World’s scariest mannequin



If I were a lout, I would crack a joke along the lines of: “Wow, that Kim Cattrall’s had some work done!”  But I’m a gentleman.  So I won’t.


Not as scary, but still creepy, was the zombie-Ally-Sheedy mannequin pictured below.  If I remember correctly, both mannequins stood in the same shop.  That place really was the Clothes Boutique of Horror.



These were spotted at New Market in Kolkata.


New Market in Kolkata



According to its Wikipedia entry, the origins of New Market in Kolkata were both grandiose and grubby.  The market, which stands on Lindsay Street, was built as an opulent arcade to meet the shopping needs of the city’s British-colonist population.  Opening at the start of 1874, it was soon attracting “(a)ffluent colonials from all over India”, who spent money in “its exclusive retailers like Ranken and Company (dressmakers), Cuthbertson and Harper (shoe-merchants) and R.W. Newman or Thacker Spink, the famous stationers and bookdealers.”  But, notes Wikipedia, the motives behind the founding of New Market were also unpleasant.  Its wealthy, white, expatriate clientele had petitioned for the building of the arcade so that they’d no longer have to associate with the Indian locals in Kolkata’s bazaars.  For the British Victorian mind-set, the problem with India was that it had Indians in it.


Of course, the British have long-since departed and New Market has long-since been Indian-ised.  But the ornate, red-brick exterior remains resolutely British-looking and in a somehow parochial way.  It resembles a showcase edifice that’d be the main point of civic pride in a medium-sized, moderately prosperous English country town.  Accordingly, when I saw the compact clock tower that rises from its eastern wall – a late addition to the market in the British Empire era, for it was only brought over (from Huddersfield) and erected in the 1930s – I found myself thinking of the beloved old BBC children’s show Trumpton.



Inside, New Market feels labyrinthine, although it shouldn’t do – it contains a grid of narrow alleys, with the alleys bisecting one another at neat right angles and with the shops and stalls arranged in neat blocks.  But it’s so busy and has so much to see that you believe you’re in a more architecturally chaotic place that you really are.  And the boundaries of the market are hard to define since it also has a basement, similarly crammed with retailers, whose far end seems to emerge in another building that contains several more floors of shops.  Plus, of course, the vendors spill outside the main building and sell their wares on the surrounding streets too.



It goes without saying that you get the impression you can buy absolutely anything here.  I saw groceries, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, confectionary, shoes, sandals,  wigs, cosmetics, toiletries, toys, suitcases, wallets, saris, shawls, scarves, trousers, shirts, T-shirts, bed-linen, jewellery, figurines, tourist nick-nacks, silverware, crystal, crockery, kitchen utensils, electrical appliances and flowers.  There are stalls selling multi-coloured spices out of giant glass jars (like the ones you used to see in old British sweetshops).  There are barber shops, and money-changers, and at least one astrologer.  I even saw a retailer who sold designer burqas, as this photo testifies:



Meanwhile, if you’re on the hunt for a handbag, you’ll be spoilt for choice if you venture out of the market’s western side – for there seems to be a million handbags on sale there, not so much hanging from as heaped up against its external wall.



However, animal-lovers and folk of a nervous disposition may want to avoid the market’s butchery area, where livestock – mainly goats and poultry, from the look of things – are slaughtered on the premises so that the meat’s as fresh as can be when it’s sold to the shoppers.  A stroll along an adjoining alley, where the poultry dealers seem to hang out, is an uncomfortable experience thanks to the smell, a pungent combination of dusty chicken feathers and acrid chicken-shit; and to the sight of countless baskets, sealed at the top with rope netting, within which are packed still-living chickens.  I saw one such basket that had a big white cat sprawled asleep across its net top – to the understandable disquiet of the nervously-clucking birds a few inches below.


The only other issues you might have with New Market are the latrines – inevitably smelly and, in at least one place, positioned so that their users have to do their business in full view of passing shoppers – and the occasional never-do-wells who latch onto visiting foreigners and pursue them offering to take them to the best shops.  I had a few exchanges with such types that went: “I’m not here to shop.  I don’t have any rupees on me.”  “Oh, I’ll take you to a shop that accepts credit cards.”  “I don’t have any credit cards on me either.”  “Oh, I’ll take you to a money-changer.”  Etc., etc.  I found that walking briskly and making a couple of sudden body-swerves down the alleys to my left or right was enough to shake them off after a minute or two.



New Market isn’t as slick and tourist-friendly as, say, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.  And I have no doubt that the modern shopping malls that are springing up around Kolkata have taken a chunk out of its profits and diminished some of its lustre.  Nevertheless, I could spend – I did spend – hours in this bustling and venerable arcade.


Compare that with the five minutes I usually spend in the average shopping mall.  Five minutes is as long as it takes me to nip onto the premises, locate the toilets, have a pee and then flee the premises again.


F**k me! That was good!


(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell


For many years, I had sat through crap superhero movies, and crap cloned dinosaur movies, and crap teenage vampire movies, and crap identikit zombie movies, and crap Adam Sandler movies, and crap Vince Vaughan movies, and crap every-other-sort-of movies, and felt sad.  I felt sad because I didn’t want to see any of those crap movies.


What I really wanted to see was a movie where Tom Hardy and a gang of leathery, take-no-shit-from-anyone motor-biking old ladies fight off hordes of albino skinheads with chainsaws on top of a giant truck that’s driven by a prosthetic-limbed woman in racoon make-up and has big jaggy metal bits sticking out of its sides and roars through a post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland at a hundred miles an hour.  But nobody had ever made this movie or was ever likely to.  And that’s why I felt sad.


But now the Australian director George Miller, who’s 70 years young, has come along and made a movie called Mad Max: Fury Road and guess what?  Tom Hardy is in it!  And so is a gang of leathery, take-no-shit-from-anyone motor-biking old ladies!  And they have to fight off hordes of albino skinheads with chainsaws on top of a giant truck!  And the giant truck is driven by a prosthetic-limbed woman in racoon make-up!  And it has big jaggy metal bits sticking out of its sides!  And – you guessed it – it roars through a post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland at a hundred miles an hour!  Oh, and it contains no trace of superheroes, cloned dinosaurs, teenage vampires, identikit zombies, Adam Sandler or Vince f***ing Vaughan.  Thanks for that, George.


(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell


Yes, Mad Max: Fury Road, which I saw a few days ago, is upon us.  And it’s a thundering, snarling, crashing, colliding behemoth of a film that makes rival summer blockbuster Jurassic World look as miniscule as a flea circus.  It has everything – the afore-mentioned Tom Hardy in the title role; and Charlize Theron playing Imperator Furiosa, the afore-mentioned prosthetic-limbed woman in raccoon make-up; and a desert-dwelling speed tribe called the Vuvalini, who are the afore-mentioned motor-biking old ladies and whose number includes 78-year-old actress Melissa Jaffer, whom I remember from the early-noughties Australian / American sci-fi show Farscape.  It’s also got two hours of non-stop vehicular mayhem, but that goes without saying.


And it’s got a white-skinned goon called Nux, who has a car engine engraved on his chest and a pair of tumours nicknamed Larry and Barry growing out of his shoulder.  Playing Nux is Nicholas Hoult – the very same Nicholas Hoult who was once little Marcus Brewster, the lad with the unfortunate pudding-bowl haircut whom Hugh Grant befriended in About a Boy (2002).  See what hanging out with Hugh Grant does to you?


(c) Working Title

(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell


And it’s got the People Eater, a corpulent chap with elephantiasis and a tin nose, who drives a modified stretch Mercedes Limousine and is played by John Howard – whom I assume isn’t the same John Howard who was Liberal Party prime minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007.  It’s got the Bullet Farmer, a lunatic whose teeth have been replaced by bullets and who drives a Valiant Charger mounted on a tank chassis.  And best of all, it’s got the Doof Warrior, a bloke who stands atop a giant rig, before a wall of speakers, playing a flame-throwing heavy-metal guitar whilst accompanied by a rhythm section consisting of half-a-dozen guys bashing away at taiku drums.  At this point I could shout, “Rock ‘n’ roll!”, but it would sound a bit pathetic.


(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell


One of the many good things about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it doesn’t stomp over the memory of the original three Mad Max movies that Miller directed between 1979 and 1985 and that starred Mel Gibson.  The first was an admirably rough-edged ‘Ozploitation’ feature.  The second, 1981’s Mad Max 2, was an out-and-out action classic that influenced everyone from Duran Duran, who in 1984 incorporated its post-apocalyptic leather-clad punk-Mohican aesthetic into their Wild Boys video, to the makers of scabrous animated TV show South Park – its hero Stan Marsh has a Mad Max 2 poster hanging in his bedroom.   Alas, the third instalment, Mad Max beyond Thunderdome, was disappointing.  Its first half was solid, but then the sanitising influence of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking began to creep in, most obviously with the introduction of a horrid Disney-esque tribe of lost children.  Byron Kennedy, producer of the first two films, died before the shooting of Thunderdome and I suspect his sad absence had something to do with the third film’s inferiority.


With Mad Max: Fury Road you can almost believe that Hardy’s character is a direct continuation of the one played by Mel Gibson.  The only thing disrupting the continuity is how Hardy is assailed by harrowing flashbacks / phantoms of his dead wife and child, and these clearly aren’t the same wife and child who were slaughtered by the bad guys in the first Mad Max.  (In Fury Road, the child is a young girl whereas in the first film it was a baby.)  Fury Road does, though, stay true to the anarchic spirit of the originals.  For one thing, despite its massive budget, Miller has kept the CGI to a minimum and crammed in as many authentic physical effects and as much authentic stunt-work as possible – things that made the original movies so eye-watering.


I suspect Miller got to make Fury Road his own way, with little interference from Hollywood and the money-men, because he’d been trying to get it off the ground since the 1990s and during that time the franchise’s image had become tainted through its association with Mel Gibson.  This was thanks to some loathsome and well-publicised anti-Semitic comments that Gibson spewed out in the mid-noughties.  After that, I’m sure, the studios wanted to keep all things Mel-related at arm’s length, including Miller and his new Mad Max project.


(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell


One nice nod to the original movies is that Fury Road’s big villain, the skull-masked Immortan Joe, is played by English actor Hugh Keays-Byrne – who played the Toecutter, the original big villain in the original Mad Max movie.   It’s just a pity that Miller didn’t cast the gangling New Zealand actor Bruce Spence in Fury Road too.  Spence was marvellous as the demented gyro-captain in Mad Max 2.  In fact, the only thing that could possibly make Fury Road even more awesome would be the appearance at the movie’s finale of Spence’s gyrocopter, swooping down from the heavens while Spence drops poisonous snakes on top of Immortan Joe’s head.


Meanwhile, feminists like Laurie Penny and Tansy Rayner Roberts have embraced Mad Max: Fury Road in admiration of its strong female characters.  Charlize Theron’s Furiosa kick-starts the plot when she snatches away five young ‘brides’ whom Immortan Joe has kept imprisoned for breeding purposes; and as the six of them make a break for freedom, with Joe and his hordes in hot pursuit, she keeps that plot in motion.  Whereas Max merely reacts to events – even after he forms an alliance with Furiosa, it’s still her who calls the shots.  The motor-biking Vuvalini rate high on the tough-gal scale too.  And even the five brides, the film’s least kick-ass female contingent, aren’t depicted as simpering eye-candy, as they might have been.  They never develop into warrior-women but, gradually and endearingly, their characters become more idiosyncratic and more proactive.


Mad Max: Fury Road goes against other Hollywood stereotypes as well.  It shows people who are mentally and physically disadvantaged – good guys like Max with post-traumatic stress disorder and Furiosa with a missing arm, and bad ones like the elephantiasis-stricken People Eater and Corpus Colossus, Joe’s telescope-wielding lookout man (played by Quentin Kenihan, a sufferer from brittle-bone disease in real life) – but who simply shrug those issues off and get on with things.  And with the Vuvalini, the film rebukes the ageism that’s rife in mainstream Hollywood.  The Vuvalini could have been played for laughs — “Look!  Hell’s Grannies!  Ha ha!” — but Miller presents them as having a wisdom and serenity that comes with old age, combined with a badass-ery that defies assumptions about old age.  The sixty and seventy-something actresses who played the Vuvalini performed their own stunts, which makes me love them even more.


(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell


It’s heartening that a major science-fiction movie with such attitudes should appear at a time when the Hugo Awards, the most prestigious set of prizes that the sci-fi community hands out to the genre’s best literary and dramatic works each year, have been engulfed in controversy.  The Hugo nomination lists for 2015 were stuffed with works forwarded by a bloc of right-wing fans who believe that sci-fi should be about Caucasian alpha-male humans zapping inferior alien species with futuristic weaponry, and not involve women, ethnic minorities, social issues, ecology or general liberal wussiness.  (And it shouldn’t be, you know, too literary.)  Organising the hijacking of the Hugo nominations were conservative writers Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia and the monumentally-reactionary arse-pipe Theodore Beale – a man who’s argued in the past that rape within marriage is legitimate, that the Taliban were justified in shooting 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, and that giving women the vote is a bad thing because women tend to favour anti-gun legislation.


I trust these cave-dwellers found Mad Max: Fury Road as welcome as someone dumping a tanker-load of manure over them.


Already Miller is talking about a sequel to Mad Max: Fury Road, but it’s impossible to see how a further movie could top this one.  Unless, of course, George heeds my advice…  And brings back Bruce Spence!


(c) Kennedy Miller Productions


Was there anything this man couldn’t do?


(c) WingNut Films


For a man who epitomised evil to generations of film-goers – he played, after all, Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself  – the passing of venerable actor Sir Christopher Lee has sparked a remarkable outpouring of love over the last few days, in online newspaper comment-threads, on Facebook and on Twitter.


The love has flowed both from ordinary punters and from the countless celebrities who knew and / or admired him.  And those celebrities have included some of the coolest people on the planet: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sir Iain McKellen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Bruce Campbell, Bryan Fuller, the Soska Sisters, the human movie-factory that is Roger Corman (who, in between tweeting to promote his new opus Sharktopus Vs Whalewolf, said of Lee, “Your talent, kindness and generosity will never be forgotten”) and Boris Johnson.  There was a deliberate mistake in that last sentence – did you spot it?


I don’t think the Queen has tweeted her condolences yet, but Joan Collins has, which is the next best thing.


From @joancollinsobe


Indeed, I’ve seen the adjective ‘awesome’ thrown around several times in description of the great man and his career.  But in my opinion, Lee wasn’t just awesome.  To me, he discovered the kingdom of Awesomeness and then journeyed in there and planted his flag (probably a skull and crossbones) on top of the highest peak of Awesomeness.  And to support this opinion, I’ll now remind you of a few of the things that Lee did during his 93 years on earth.


Until his death on June 7th, he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in the early noughties he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.  (Previously, Lee had attended Summer Fields School in Oxford, where one of his classmates was none other than the future John Steed-of-The Avengers Patrick Macnee.)


Incidentally, though in the late 1970s he penned an entertaining autobiography called Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee didn’t seem to go in for writing per se.  But he had literary connections aplenty.  He was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.


Talking of Wheatley and the occult, Lee reputedly owned a library of books about black magic.  As a kid I remember reading a film book called The Horror People by the critic John Brosnan, in which Lee told Brosnan that his occult books were for reading purposes only and he would never try to practice the dark arts because – yikes! – “It’s too dangerous.”


Lee’s military service during World War II included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol (which was the forerunner to the SAS), but he kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.


In the late 1940s he got into acting, although not with much initial success due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification (and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement).


(c) 20th Century Fox


And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (He starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.


In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw did indeed get the job; so that the man who played Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.


Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together.  Such was Lee’s affection for Cushing that I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded the other day when the ever-reliable Fox News f***ed up the announcement of Lee’s death by mistakenly flashing up a photograph of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977).


(c) Fox News


Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula – an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him the other day, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Chris, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.


(c) Hammer Films

(c) Hammer Films


As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marsha Hunt and Caroline Munro.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness’s where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut, so that blood splatters noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes.  I suspect that exposure to that traumatic scene transformed me from the morbid, oddball kid I was then into the normal, well-balanced adult I am today.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.


Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many cool and memorable, though evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a nasty, snobbish civil servant and tormented Donald Pleasence in Deathline (1972).


He did bad things to, and had bad things done to him in return by Peter Cushing.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), he brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with fear, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently not good for vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography, left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force, had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs, and was generally such an evil motherf***er that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had to join forces to defeat it!  Silly horror movies don’t get any better than this.


(c) Jack Morrisey / The New Yorker


Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, Lee also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava and with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.  (Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has begun to improve and art-house director Peter Strickland’s recent movie The Duke of Burgundy is a tribute, at least in part, to the man.)


Franco also directed later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s super-villain in rather unpolitically-correct Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  And when Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters got blown up at the end, Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke: “The world will hear of me again!”  A prediction that proved to be right.


(c) Compton Films


In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing sleuth to the screen.


In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft – the role that Mark Gatiss now plays in the popular BBC TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by his long-ago school chum Patrick Macnee.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.


(c) Hammer Films


In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  It’s sad to think that recent years have seen the deaths of nearly all the film’s main cast members – Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward and now Lee – leaving just Britt Ekland in the land of the living.  So take care of yourself, Britt.  Go easy when you’re dancing naked around your bedroom.


Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to hang out with icons like Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998), although Lee usually made the excuse that these films weren’t really horror ones.


The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t really a horror film?  Aye, right, Sir Chris.  At least you got to snog Sybil Danning in that one.


From @sybildanning


Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up and become major players in the film industry, and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings ones.  Burton, meanwhile, ended up casting him in five of his films, though I suspect the only reason he put him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004) was so that he could have a scene at the end where Lee and Johnny Depp give each other a hug.  Aw!




When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  Yuletide will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.


Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.  And the other evening, when Alice Cooper received the Legend Award at Kerrang magazine’s yearly awards, he dedicated his win to the just-departed Sir Chris.


(c) Charlemagne Productions Ltd


So was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he was in his mid-fifties, he claimed in his autobiography that he’d been killed onscreen more times than any other actor in history – but who always returned to perpetrate more villainy, it feels odd to be writing now that Christopher Lee has finally and definitely passed away.


And if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man, by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.


(c) Seven Keys


RIP, Sir Christopher


(c) British Lion


Alas, a moment that I’ve dreaded has finally arrived.  The name of Sir Christopher Lee – who was just about my most favourite actor on the planet – is currently trending on Twitter because it was recently disclosed that the mighty actor has passed away.  He died in hospital last Sunday after developing respiratory problems, but his death wasn’t announced publicly until today, after his family members had all been informed.


My many reasons for liking him included his productivity, versatility and venerability.  By the time he turned 90, which was three years ago, he’d made about 275 films and I’m sure he’d added a few more to that total (including the recent, high-profile third Hobbit movie) between then and now.  He was also Britain’s most linguistic actor – he spoke German, French, Italian and Spanish and also knew a bit of Swedish, Russian and Greek, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to assist in the dubbing of some of his English-language movies for foreign markets.


And he was surely Britain’s most literary actor too, because his massive film and television CV contained adaptations of stories by Lewis Carroll, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Roald Dahl, Alexandre Dumas, Ian Fleming, Rider Haggard, Washington Irving, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, Edgar Allan Poe, Sax Rohmer, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne and Dennis Wheatley.


And he seemed to have been around forever.  He was making films back in the 1940s and if he hadn’t been legendary for anything else, he would have been on the strength of the mind-boggling fact that he was the only actor in history to have conducted sword fights with Errol Flynn and Yoda.  (Lee had a light-saber duel with George Lucas’s sentence-mangling space-muppet in 2002’s Attack of the Clones.)




In recent years, he popped up in movies made by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson, all of whom, as nippers, had watched him avidly in the old Hammer horror movies that he made with Peter Cushing.  And he also – I love this – carved out a new career for himself by lending his distinctive voice to symphonic and concept heavy metal albums recorded with bands like Manowar and Rhapsody of Fire.  I can’t think of a cooler hobby to take up when you’re in your late eighties.


And of course, he was Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1974), a member of the landed gentry who was not adverse to burning the odd virginal Free Presbyterian policeman as a sacrifice to the pagan gods, in return for a decent harvest on his island estate.  Yes, this man was truly magnificent.


One of the sweetest comments I’ve seen on Twitter since the announcement of his passing was by someone who speculated that his dear old friend and Hammer colleague Peter Cushing might be waiting to greet him outside the pearly gates.  Yes, I can just imagine Cushing’s clipped, gentlemanly tones echoing what he said at the beginning of the 1972 Spanish-British horror movie Horror Express, when his character bumped into Lee’s character on a railway-station platform.  “Well, well, well…  Look who’s here!”


(c) Granada Films